Colorblindness and Transracial Adoption

A Facebook video led me to Melissa Guida-Richards who is an author, adoptee and mom. I think I had encountered her before in one of the many articles she has written. Then I found one in People that starts off with her story. Though I understand enough about how problematic transracial adoptions are, I also accept that they have happened and will continue to happen in our current society.

On November 18 2021, hers was the lead story in a People magazine article on – Why ‘Colorblindness’ Doesn’t Work for Transracial Adoptions — and How to Get It Right. Melissa is what is referred to as a late-discovery adoptee. Someone who didn’t know they were adopted until well into maturity.

Melissa Guida-Richards grew up in an extended family that cherished their culture and heritage as Italian and Portuguese immigrants. So as a child, she was confused when outsiders would ask her if she was Latina or “something else.” In first grade a girl told her “you’re Black. You can’t play with me.” “I’d tell them I was Italian,” Guida-Richards, 28, says. “But I would be confused. I’d come home and ask my parents and they’re like ‘You’re Italian. You’re one of us. Just ignore people.” 

She believed her parents, who also had dark hair and eyes, that her dark skin came from some past Italian origins. Then, at 19, she found documents proving not only was she adopted, but so was her brother. They were both born in Colombia – and not biological siblings. 

For years, parents who adopted children of other races might have thought the “right” thing to do was to pretend like they “didn’t see color,” and not acknowledge their children’s differences. But disregarding their children’s race could have far-reaching impact, and is the subject of her recently released book “What White Parents Should Know About Transracial Adoption.”   Guida-Richards and others, like author and international speaker on transracial adoption Rhonda Roorda, assert a colorblind attitude does not serve transracial adoptees in a world where color often defines you. 

“Many adopted children of color struggle with their identities and white parents who cling to this narrative [of “colorblindness”] are doing their children a disservice,” Guida-Richards says. “What is important for adoptive parents to realize is that their privilege will not protect their children of color as they face discrimination and racism. They need to prepare their children for a world that does see color.” 

About one-third of all adoptions between 2017 and 2019 were transracial, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  White megastars from Madonna to Angelina Jolie have adopted children of color, their photos gracing the covers of magazines. And the hit NBC series “This is Us” has put the adoption of a Black child into a white family – and his subsequent struggles impacting him into adulthood — front and center in an honest portrayal of the very real issues facing people of color in America compared to their white counterparts. 

“I think that because love was married to a colorblind policy saying we don’t see color. It has devastated many adoptees … we want to be seen,” Rhonda Roorda says. “I remember wanting to be white and dying to fit in, dying to please my parents, dying to understand the rules and the policies and the culture. It didn’t work. … We’re not seeing all of our children, we are not seeing the richness that they bring to the table.”

Guida-Richards was raised in a solidly white middle class New York suburb with limited diversity. Her father, who came to the United States from Italy at 13, told her the first Black person he ever saw was a student at his high school. “At first, they refused to even acknowledge I was Colombian, that I was a woman of color. They didn’t see me as the daughter they adopted from Colombia. They saw me as their daughter,” Guida-Richards says. “I understood that, but it left a big piece of my identity out.” Her family often emphasized that family and heritage matters, but they discouraged her from looking further into her own cultural background.

“I sat down with them and said, we need to talk about race. We need to talk about how I’m treated and how this has affected me,” Guida-Richards says. “It’s been 9 years and thankfully we are in a very good place.” While her late father came around fairly quickly, it took longer for her mom. Guida-Richards married a man whose mother was Colombian. When she became pregnant in 2016 with the first of their two children, her mom started opening up about her struggle with infertility and the decision to adopt. And she told her daughter that she was afraid that people, and even members of their family, would treat her differently if they knew she was Latina. 

“We did have prejudices that I experienced growing up in a white family who made fun of Latinos,” Guida-Richards says. “So when I found out I was Latina, I was like, how could you love me and say those things? They just wanted me to ignore that I was a woman of color and unfortunately, it’s not as easy they make it out to be.” Guida-Richards was honest with her mom about how she felt like “this big ugly secret” that her mom could only love as long as she fit into the mold. And she reminded her mother that she would soon be the grandmother to Latinos. “It took a lot of hard conversations until she understood,” Guida-Richards says. 

To help her understand her own feeling about being denied her heritage, Guida-Richards started reaching out to other adoptees, finding Facebook groups just for transracial adoption and adoptees from Colombia. “I realized that I wasn’t alone,” Guida-Richards says. “Race wasn’t addressed [growing up], so we struggled with our identity. We struggled with how to deal with racism because we weren’t prepared.” Guida-Richards eventually connected with her birth mother and her Colombian culture through both her birth mom’s family and her in-laws. “I knew a lot of Italian, I knew how to act Italian, but I had no idea what it is like to walk in the shoes of a Latina,” she says. “I just started to integrate a little bit at a time. Since my father was a chef who owned restaurants, food played a large part in my upbringing so I started with that.” 

As she started integrating the Colombian with the Italian traditions, she discovered that both her cultures tended to have a lot in common. “I’ve gotten to a place where I’m happy to be part of my adoptive family, but I’m also very happy that I have my birth family back in my life,” she says.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy

I came across the letters DBT in an adoption discussion group and as I had no idea what it stood for, I do what I often do in such cases, google it. It started with this comment by an adoptive parent –

“I just had it click in a deeper way yesterday that I put a lot of thought and effort and will into trying to heal my kids. As if I’m a savior. As if I can. But in DBT, it talks about creating a change ready environment for your kids. By the way, if you can find a child DBT therapist, do it! Its expensive and it involves individual and parent and group sessions, and its work and learning, but its SUPER effective. All kinds of stuff prove its effective. Back to my point, if I’m trying to create a change ready environment, a calm and consistent environment where mean words can roll off my back, and I’m working on me setting the example that self care is important and I’m working on me so that I can hold all the pain they send my way, that’s where I make the most beneficial impact for all of the family and that’s where I love my kids the best.”

DBT stands for Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Dialectical behavior therapy is an evidence-based psychotherapy that began with efforts to treat borderline personality disorder. There is evidence that DBT can be useful in treating mood disorders, suicidal ideation, and for change in behavioral patterns such as self-harm and substance abuse. Many of these issues are aspects experienced by adoptees due to the trauma of separation from their original mothers.

One woman commented – “DBT absolutely SAVED MY LIFE. The skills helped me stop with SI and I then went on to lose 140 pounds.” I had to google SI too. Introverted sensing (or Si for short) is one of the most misunderstood cognitive functions in the personality community. Introverted sensing is a perceiving (information-gathering) function. It focuses on the subjective, internal world of personal experience and compares and contrasts new experiences to past experiences and memories. Si-users tend to notice patterns repeating themselves and are quick to spot changes or inconsistencies in their environment. They trust personal experience and subjectively explore the impact of current events, choices, and consequences.

So back to DBT . . . .

Its main goals are to teach people how to live in the moment, develop healthy ways to cope with stress, regulate their emotions, and improve their relationships with others. DBT can help people who have difficulty with emotional regulation or are exhibiting self-destructive behaviors (eating disorders and substance use disorders). DBT is sometimes used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

DBT incorporates a philosophical process called dialectics. Dialectics is based on the concept that everything is composed of opposites and that change occurs when there is a “dialogue” between opposing forces. The process makes three basic assumptions:

All things are interconnected.
Change is constant and inevitable.
Opposites can be integrated to form a closer approximation.

Mindfulness skills help you slow down and focus on using healthy coping skills when you are in the midst of emotional pain. The strategy can also help you stay calm and avoid engaging in automatic negative thought patterns and impulsive behavior. BTW, I am a BIG believer in mindfulness.

Distress tolerance techniques help prepare you for intense emotions and empower you to cope with them with a more positive long-term outlook. There are 4 techniques – distraction, improving the moment, self-soothing and thinking of the pros and cons of not tolerating distress.

Emotion regulation lets you navigate powerful feelings in a more effective way. The skills you learn will help you to identify, name, and change your emotions. When you are able to recognize and cope with intense negative emotions (for example, anger), it reduces your emotional vulnerability and helps you have more positive emotional experiences.

Interpersonal effectiveness helps you to become more assertive in a relationship (for example, expressing your needs and be able to say “no”) while still keeping a relationship positive and healthy. You will learn to listen and communicate more effectively, deal with challenging people, and respect yourself and others.

The Wounds and Heartbreak of Adoption

In truth, we have to integrate our wounds into our understanding of who we are and what we are really capable of so that we can be whole human beings.  Only from there can we begin the process of healing the brokenness, the broken-heartedness within ourselves that is then the foundation for beginning to heal that in our larger society.
~ Rev Angel Kyodo Williams, Radical Dharma

Many adoptees seek a reunion with their original families to heal the woundedness and heartbreak of being abandoned (the adoptees’ perspective) by their original parents. If it goes well, it goes a long way toward healing those wounds. If it goes badly, the wound becomes further infected unless the adoptee can somehow reflect upon the disappointing experience to find wholeness within their own self.

An adoptee may ask –

When do I get good enough so that my despair goes away ?

Who will love me enough when they see who I really am ?

The shadows and vague memories of what happened to me are hard to sit with. Why do I keep running everyone away ?

Will I suffocate in the silence of my lack of identity, my lack of knowing the origins of my birth ?

What use does crying my tears really do for this pain in my heart ?

Systems of power and abuse depend upon not acknowledging the suffering they cause.  The rainbows and unicorns version of all the good adoption does fails to acknowledge the suffering that the adoptee experiences and the suffering the mother who gives up her child carries the rest of her lifetime.  Often that suffering is so painful, the mother will reject her child, who is only seeking to reconnect with her, because the mother fears being rejected by her child, when her child knows the reality of the mother that gave birth to her.

It is a horrendous cycle of unending suffering in many cases.  My heart breaks for the reality.  And I really don’t have answers, only empathy and compassion for the entire situation.

Am I capable of enduring suffering, facing martyrdom ?
And alone ?
Again the long loneliness to be faced.
~ Dorothy Day